Denver — Things looked like they were starting to come together.
Or maybe it’s just another curve in the roller-coaster ride that is the Pistons’ season.
Whatever the case, the Pistons came out with a better performance following Thursday night’s loss at New Orleans.
It just wasn’t enough.
They gave up a season-high 39 points in the third quarter in another defensive collapse and fell to the Denver Nuggets, 104-101, on Saturday night at Pepsi Center.
With the shot clock almost running out, Danilo Gallinari scored the last of his 30 points on a go-ahead, contested jumper over Marcus Morris with 23.8 seconds left, and the Pistons missed two chances to take the lead in the final 20 seconds.
“It was a great defensive possession and Marcus did everything you can do on that shot,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said.
As has been the case for the past couple weeks, defense was the bugaboo — and the 39-point third quarter was the Pistons’ undoing.
The Nuggets shot 70 percent (16-of-23), including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers. Emmanuel Mudiay had 11 of his 18 points in the period, including a drive and a 3-pointer that were part of a 15-2 spurt.
Denver made 11 of its first 12 field goals in the third quarter, turning a 54-45 deficit into a 69-65 lead at the 5:50 mark.
Morris (20 points) helped stem the tide with a 3-pointer and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (16 points) added another, but Mudiay had two baskets in between and the Nuggets (17-27) extended the lead to 84-74 heading into the final quarter.
The Pistons opened the fourth quarter with a 20-5 surge, spurred by the reserves. Stanley Johnson (12 points) and Aron Baynes (13 points and 10 rebounds) combined for 11 points during the run, as Johnson started it with a 3-pointer and added a reverse lay-in, and Baynes had a dunk on a pass from Johnson to push the Pistons ahead, 94-89, with 7:04 remaining.
But Gallinari and Nikola Jokic (17 points) answered with four points each over the next 4:18 and the Nuggets had a three-point lead.
Reggie Jackson hit a reverse and added a 3-pointer after Gallinari split a pair of free throws, and Mudiay responded with a pair of free throws for a 100-99 lead.
Baynes played 30 minutes, as Andre Drummond was in foul trouble in the first half and Van Gundy didn’t want to use Drummond in the final minutes of a tight game because of his poor free-throw shooting.
Baynes hit a go-ahead lay-in off a pass from Jackson to put the Pistons ahead with 43.8 seconds left, but Gallinari answered with the final go-ahead jumper.
“It was not a set play,” Gallinari said. “I caught the ball with four seconds left on the shot clock and so I had to make a move in a tight spot — but it went in.”
Jackson had a chance to give the Pistons the lead again, but missed on two layup attempts, through some contact.
Morris was called for a technical foul — his ninth of the season — in the final minute for arguing with the officials, the frustration brewing from what he felt were foul calls made and missed in the crucial moments of the game.
“Man, I am just tired of this,” Jackson vented. “I have the most drives in the league and I average maybe three free throws a game. That is just crazy.
“Gallinari shoots 16. He is a great player, but the guy shoots 16. I attack the basket more than most people in the league and I can’t get a free throw (call).”
The Pistons looked to be turning things around with a stronger effort, opening the game 4-of-4 from the field, with an assist on each basket. They finished the first quarter with a 13-2 run and led, 32-26.
They took a 54-45 lead into halftime, after holding a double-digit lead for the middle parts of the second quarter, but the Nuggets had a 6-1 spurt to close it to nine.
Turns for the worse
The Pistons finished with 16 turnovers, which the Nuggets turned into 23 points, another sore area for Van Gundy.
“We turned it over a lot. We didn’t handle the ball well at all,” Van Gundy said. “They play really hard — harder than we do — and they deserved to win.
“If you look at the numbers, that was the two numbers that won the game. We had 16 turnovers to their eight and they outscored us by 14 on the free-throw line.”
Drummond finished with a season-low four points in a season-low 18 minutes, with just eight rebounds — his third-lowest output of the season.